Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Visitation

I imagine it was like this

From the 2006 film The Nativity Story. Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary and Shohreh Aghdashloo as Elizabeth

The collect for the feast of the Visitation:
Father in heaven, by whose grace the virgin mother of thy incarnate Son was blessed in bearing him, but still more blessed in keeping thy word: Grant us who honor the exaltation of her lowliness to follow the example of her devotion to thy will; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Shared Governance: The Polity of the Episcopal Church

From Fr Tobias Haller, BSG:

Shared Governance: The Polity of the Episcopal Church is now available from Church Publishing and Google Books (with preview) and is making its way into the hands of Deputies to the upcoming General Convention.

The collection is intended specifically as an educational and reflection tool for Deputies to the General Convention, and offers a number of insights particularly geared to their work; however, any Episcopalian wanting to be better informed about how and why our church came to function in the way it does will find the essays helpful. Throughout the collection, effort has been made to provide an accurate perspective for the reader, and to dispel or correct some of the prevailing mythology concerning the origins and practice of our shared governance.

Time to retire infant baptism?

There are a number of resolutions before General Convention that touch upon our rites of initiation and identity. These resolutions are not explicitly linked, and we must be careful not to mix up our fears and concerns (as Scott Gunn graciously reminded me). The resolutions about which I'm thinking are resolutions that are being discussed here and elsewhere in the blog world - Resolution C040 [these links are to PDF files of the resolution text] proposed by Eastern Oregon which would remove the canon stipulating that one must be a baptized Christian to receive Holy Communion, and resolutions A041, A042, A043, and A044 (discussed here yesterday) which would collectively remove the requirement that lay leaders (and, possibly, ordained leaders) should be confirmed.

The resolutions about confirmation have stimulated some wonderful conversation about the sacramental requirements for church leadership, the meaning of confirmation, the sufficiency of baptism for church membership. There has been more chat on facebook (of course). It's clear that we're as uncertain about confirmation as we have been for centuries. It's clear that we're changing our views about baptism over the past few decades. The whole thing got me thinking:

Perhaps it's time to consider scrapping infant baptism? 

In the Episcopal Church, we claim that baptism is "full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ's Body the Church." But given the current trajectory of our sacramental and ritual theology, for what reason should babies be given this initiation? If we only baptize people who are old enough to ask for it, then we don't actually need what confirmation has become: "mature public affirmation of their faith and commitment to the responsibilities of their Baptism." (The language of the prayer book actually says that even those baptized as adults ought to receive the laying-on of hands from the bishop, but this doesn't in any way complete or fix or finish the work of baptism). We won't need to be concerned with whether lay leaders have demonstrated commitment and fidelity to the church they are leading. And perhaps, actually, dropping the confirmation requirement for leadership in the church based on the notion that baptism is all-sufficient is a way to open the door to Sydney-style Lay Presidency.

If we no longer require a person to be baptized before receiving communion, then our toddlers can come to the altar rail with no impediment. I suspect that many or most Episcopalians tend towards universalism, and certainly a comparison of the baptismal rites from 1928 and 1979 prayer books will reveal that we have stopped thinking of baptism as "fire insurance" or as a way to protect the infant from the fires of hell.

Tim Sean, on facebook, brought his Baptist roots to bear on the implications. He wrote
Having come for the Baptist denomination "adult" baptism isn't really the answer either. You end up shaping your whole ethos and community practice to ensure that children (and eventually young adults) voluntarily seek baptism, which then raises the entire conundrum of what is the minimal amount of understanding one needs before (an eight year old some, a twelve year old more, a seventeen year old, etc...)
It's a good point. I don't know that it would be such a bad thing to orient the church around helping people (of any age) towards and through the font. But what is the minimum necessary understanding of the faith required for baptism? Presiding Bishop Katherine encouraged us to be more quick to baptize, to provide "on-call baptism". And if we're going to offer communion to people regardless of baptism (and regardless of a minimum level of understanding), then there shouldn't be any intellectual barrier to the sacrments, surely? If they ask for the waters, they get the waters.

Now, to be absolutely clear, I personally don't think we should do this. I am too catholic in my religion to do away with a practice that is as old, at least, as St. Augustine. I am one of those Episcopalians who thinks that something does happen, both in confirmation and baptism. But neither is this post tongue-in-cheek. If our theology and practice are heading this direction, adapting and modifying our sacramental theology in such radical ways, then isn't this a logical next step?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Blue Book: On Confirmation and Leadership

Scott Gunn has been working his way through the Blue Book over at Seven Whole Days. In yesterday's post, he considers the resolutions concerning life-long Christian formation and education.

Several of the resolutions presented by the Standing Commission on Lifelong Christian Formation and Education would alter the requirements and expectations for positions of church leadership. There are four resolutions which are, I think, working in concert to achieve a single shift. The resolutions are A041, A042, A043, and A044.

The shift is this:

  • Currently, a lay person must have received the sacrament of Confirmation in order to fill certain leadership roles. A lay person who seeks ordination as a deacon or priest must likewise be confirmed.
  • If the resolutions A042A043, and A044 are adopted, this requirement will be removed from both the Constitution and Canons, and lay leaders and those seeking ordination will simply need to be adult communicants.
  • If resolution A041 passes, lay people in positions of authority and leadership would need to receive some sort of training in the "history, structure, and governance" of the Episcopal Church, as well as specific instruction about the office they will assume.
My response to this is mixed. The resolutions make clear that the motivation for this change is that Baptism is full and complete initiation into the Body of Christ, and so it is Baptism, not Confirmation, that ought to be required of leaders. Father Gunn supports these resolutions for this reason. I agree that Baptism is full and complete initiation into the church, that a Baptized Christian is a complete Christian. But it is one thing to be a Christian and another thing to be a Christian leader. Resolution 042 states that "that the baptismal theology of the Book of Common Prayer understands Baptism and not Confirmation to be the sacramental prerequisite for leadership in The Episcopal Church." I'm not sure it does. Our baptismal theology does claim that baptism is the sacramental prerequisite for membership in the church, but I'm not sure that it rules out a higher standard for leadership. 

Confirmation is an opportunity for those baptized as infant "to make a mature public affirmation of their faith and commitment to the responsibilities of their Baptism". Is it strange to expect a person who is called to be a leader in the church to demonstrate this mature public affirmation of faith and commitment? As a reminder, the canons we're discussing cover every ministry from Eucharistic Minister and parish Vestry-member all the way up to Executive Council and Chancellor of The Episcopal Church. While Baptism may be the basic sacramental requirement for membership in the Christian church, is it wrong to expect a higher standard of commitment from leadership? Twisting the Ethiopian eunuch's (rhetorical) question to Philip, what is to stop them from being confirmed?

This question doesn't come from a desire to find a reason for Confirmation to exist. It has been called "a sacrament in search of a theology" (by whom, by the way? I can't remember) and we're not quite sure if it's a "completion" of baptism or a kind of Christian bat/bar mitzvah. Our theology of confirmation is unsettled, and yet it is clear that it's an opportunity for a person of mature mind to stand up in public and claim her Christian faith. That shouldn't be a weird thing to expect in our leaders, should it?

Resolution A041, though, does a good thing in theory. It is clear that our leaders need to be trained and educated leaders. We must know our context and our history and our structures if we are to function within those things. This resolution would, effectively, mandate training and education for lay leaders in the "history, structure, and governance" of the church. These resolutions, taken together, would replace the (perceived) sacramental requirement with an educational requirement. In principle, I think it's a fine idea. In practice, it's bound to be tricky. Who will come up with that curriculum? How will the future candidate for Chancellor prove to us that she or he has taken this training? Will I, as a parish priest, need to sit down with the people who are running for Vestry to make sure that they're qualified before the election happens? 

Perhaps I'm sensitive to this because we are also seeing an effort to remove the requirement that one be Baptized before making one's communion with Christ in the sacrament (Creedal Christian is the latest to write about this), and I'm seeing an across-the-board devaluing of our rites of commitment. Maybe that's not what's happening here, but we are replacing a rite that ought to be encouraged in all Christians with a bureaucratic requirement that, while worthy, will be difficult to implement.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sustainable Future?

Crusty Old Dean has written a pretty blunt piece about the state of change in the Episcopal Church. It's excellent, as are all of his postings, and the takeaway is that we will do ourselves no favors by ignoring the possibility that we are edging towards collapse as a church. First, Anglican identity in North America has pretty much always struggled, except for a "golden age" in the mid-20th century. That golden age is going now. Second, Christianity as "Christendom" has run its course, and we are pretty much at the end of the privileged position for the church in our culture. Yes, yes, there are plenty of Christians left, and plenty of places in America where Christianity is expected and assumed, but Christendom is in retreat in those areas where is not already defunct.

So COD raises the question of sustainability. Our numbers are shrinking and continuing to shrink. Fewer parishes are in a position to support a rector. So, perhaps it's time to ask for what purpose does the Episcopal Church exist? Would it not at some point be more reasonable to merge or be absorbed into another part of the Christian family?

Theology? Our theology is, overall, progressive, but perhaps not as progressive as the UCC. Would theological progressives who wish to advance that cause feel more at home there?

Liturgy? Our liturgy, particularly our prayer book, matter to us, but then again we're seeing an explosion of liturgical forms and diversity in worship, from Enriching our Worship to Hip-hop Masses to the regular use of the New Zealand Prayer Book, so at what point are we still a church bound together around a common prayer? The Liturgical Movement has done much to equalize our rites. Those for whom liturgy is very important will be able to carve out a ministry for themselves in Methodist or Lutheran or Presbyterian congregations.

Anglican Communion? Our membership in the worldwide fellowship of Anglicans is important, but not so important that we're willing to forego changes in doctrine and practice. At what point does "Anglican heritage and identity" drop by the wayside?

I keep hearing about how the institutional church needs to change in order to serve our core functions: mission and ministry. Would these be better served if we joined forces and made common cause with the ELCA or with the UCC? Why, in a nutshell, are we remaining Episcopalian? Is it nostalgia? Do we do something or other "better" than other churches? If we can answer this, we might be on the way towards discovering what we have to offer the culture around us.